Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Free Pianos

Do NOT buy a piano without consulting a Registered Piano Technician. The used piano business is FAR WORSE than the used car business!

With the economy the way it is, many parents are looking for real bargain pianos. They search the classified ads, Craig's List, Buy & Sell Online, and other piano resource pages.

Piano seller ads (I should say: "Run as fast as you can" if you see some of the wording for ads below.)
1. Leaving the country - must sell now!
2. House just sold - piano free!
3. 80 year old piano in perfect condition. A few notes don't work and pedal needs adjusting. Perfect for the beginner.
4. Old piano. Selling as furniture.

Thinking that cheaper is better (because nobody wants to spend money if their children may lose interest in playing the piano), parents sometimes look for the cheapest piano.

I get calls all the time from customers who have been given (or found) a free piano. Immediately, my heart sinks because I am all too aware of the dangers of "caveat emptor" - Let the buyer beware.

Here is a list of the questions I ask:
1. What is the name of the piano? From the name, I can tell where the piano was made. Hopefully it was produced for the North American market.
2. I ask what the serial number is so I can find out the age of the instrument.
3. When was the piano last tuned? There should be a business card in the piano (just under the top lid) or the seller (giving away the piano for free) may know who the tuner was.
4. I ask the customer to play all the notes chromatically (from the lowest bass note to the highest treble note), and I listen over the phone as they play. I can immediately deduce most problems (but not all) just by listening to the notes (some notes may not work).
5. I ask the customer to take camera phone photos behind the piano, looking down inside the piano from the top and a photo of the front of the piano.

If I get good feedback from answers to the above questions, I will probably set up a time to do a piano appraisal.

The BEST book of information on how to buy a piano: http://www.pianobuyer.com
It is free to view online!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Kids Quit Piano Lessons

Ever wonder why kids stop playing the piano? (This is only my perspective on viewing hundreds of situations during daily piano servicing over many years).

As a piano technician, I am always astonished at the condition of pianos that children are asked to play. Amazingly, some of these kids are absolutely top notch and are somehow able to compensate for the lack of playability of their pianos.

Here are just a couple of examples of the pianos I have encountered recently.

Case #1: An institution has a piano that is used regularly. I was called in by a fellow technician to work on the piano because it was not functioning properly.

Believe it or not, I could not get any of the notes to play - AT ALL!! Wondering what the time line would be to get the piano in working order, I asked how often the piano was used (assuming it was not played at all). I was told that it was in use ALL THE TIME!

How is this possible? How can kids be asked to play pianos that simply do not work? How can they stay inspired if they are asked to play something that has no sound? I know - it was a completely unbelievable experience for me as well.

Case #2: A customer brought the family piano from Asia. I was called in to work on it after a teacher gave me the referral. I was told that the children were keenly interested in playing but some of the notes (every time I hear those few words, alarm bells go off) were not sounding quite right.

The piano was a complete disaster! Tuning pins horribly loose, action parts wobbly. There was simply no way the piano could be played. It needed to be completely rebuilt!

My opinion is that kids are astonishing at hearing good quality sound. After all they listen to sound tracks on the computer much of the time. Their hearing becomes so highly developed, they are actually able (in my experience) to hear quite well when the piano is going out of tune.

Kids advise their parents that "the piano sounds funny" and that they should get the piano tuned. Most of the parents hear the complaints, but either put off the tuning because of budgetary reasons or because they ignore the requests of their children.

Kids start to lose interest and stop playing the piano entirely. It is a very sad situation. After all, the parents have paid good money to get an instrument so their kids would have an interest in playing but are usually neglectful in paying a small amount extra to get regular piano servicing every year.

It is a lose, lose situation. The kids quit piano and the parents don't understand why. Then the parents have to find some other interest for their child.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Piano Tuner Accreditation

When I decided to become a piano tuner, I contacted the technician who had been servicing our family piano for many years. To test my inspiration, the technician advised me to read two technical piano books first to see if I really wanted to study the profession. The first book is called "Piano Tuning and Allied Arts" (http://www.amazon.com/Piano-Tuning-Allied-William-Braid/dp/9996267636) by William Braid White. The second book is "Piano Servicing Tuning and Rebuilding" (http://www.amazon.com/Piano-Servicing-Tuning-Rebuilding-Second/dp/1879511029/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_bl) by Arthur A. Reblitz.

After reading these books, I found that my interest in piano technology only increased. I was then advised to take a correspondence piano technology course. The course I chose was the Niles Bryant correspondence course in Sacramento California and to my knowledge is no longer available.

Upon completing the correspondence course, I trained with several technicians in one location for a few years. The training was very intense and I had to work for 5 - 7 days a week. The training included tuning, regulating, repairs and complete rebuilding.

One day, while out in the field, my trainer told me that I was going to do the tuning for this job, completely by ear. When I was finished, he checked my work and told me that in his opinion I was ready to take the Piano Technicians Guild tuning exam.

I signed up for the tuning exam and passed it in Tacoma Washington on my first try (minimum of 80% to pass in 8 sections). Deciding that was not good enough, I took the exam an additional 4 times to see how good I could get. After all in this field, being just good is not good enough. My customers expect the best job possible at all times.

After passing the tuning exam, I took the Piano Technicians Guild technical exam in Vancouver. I also passed this exam on my first try and soon afterward I received confirmation from the PTG Home Office that I had been reclassified to Registered Piano Technician status.

I have continued to upgrade my skills by attending numerous Regional Conferences and PTG Conventions.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Piano Tuning Myths & Misinformation

Over the years, the piano owner has become misinformed about the care and maintenance of their instrument.

Myth: Pianos get better over time.
Fact: No! Can you think of ANY manufactured item that gets better over time? When you buy a car, you are advised by the car manufacturer to set up a maintenance schedule because your car will require yearly service. That's because over time, parts will start to deteriorate. Using the car analogy again, if you drive your car constantly, the tires will eventually go bald and lose the tread to grip the road surface. In a piano hammer, the surface must be very smooth to produce a high quality sound. Over time, from constant use, the hammers become heavily grooved and the sounds produced becomes very strident, loud and difficult to listen to. Only by re-shaping the hammers, can the surfaces be brought back to smooth oval shapes to produce the best sounds possible. So far, I've only talked about piano hammers. What about the thousands of other parts of the piano action that require yearly maintenance. Sadly, most piano owners almost never keep their pianos maintained. They usually call to have their pianos tuned (not realizing that they are actually calling the tuner to fix something!).

Myth: A piano tuner is the same as a piano technician.
Fact: No! Some tuners only know how to tune and have no formal training in repair or maintenance. Again, it comes down to trade papers. Are they qualified or are they not?

Myth: All tuners who advertise their craft are qualified.
Fact: No! Piano tuning is NOT a regulated profession. ANYBODY can buy tools, a tuning machine and go out into the public domain and work as a 'Professional' (only means that they take money for their work) Piano Tuner. One of the most glaring examples I saw was a very large yellow page ad in the phone book. The person advertised themselves as a professional piano tuner and could not even set pitch (A440). They had no knowledge of how to set a temperament either! Please check for trade papers and if those are not easily available, recommendations (word of mouth) from recording or music (piano teacher) studios or concert venues.

Myth: Tuning by ear is the only way! Electronic tuning machines are no good! 
Fact: Not necessarily. It depends on the qualifications (trade papers) of the tuner. A major advantage for the customer is being able to see, electronically, if their piano requires a pitch raise or not. Without seeing visually where their piano is at, the customer must take the word of the piano tuner (and pay more) and cannot dispute a pitch raise suggestion!

Myth: The piano tuner used a machine! This tuner does not know how to tune.
Fact: Not necessarily. If the piano tuner served an apprenticeship and has trade papers, they certainly know what they are doing.

Myth: The piano tuner used a machine and tuned from the lowest note in the bass to the highest note in the treble without checking intervals. They do not know what they are doing!
Fact: Wrong! The tuner was probably doing a pitch raise or a pitch lowering in order to stabilize the piano at A440. The actual fine tuning would be done immediately afterward.

Myth: Moving a piano completely puts the piano out of tune.
Fact: If pianos are moved small distances very carefully in stable environments, there is actually very little change. By far, people use moving as an excuse instead of not tuning their pianos for a great many years!

Myth: Piano teachers are fully trained in piano inspection.
Fact: Teachers are very useful in playing and hearing the tone of pianos but almost always have no piano technological background. They have no tools for inspecting piano defects. All the teachers I know call me first to inspect pianos for their students.

Myth: It is more expensive to tune a grand piano than an upright piano.
Fact: It should not be! When tuning a grand the tuner usually sits on the piano bench and can rest his/her arm near the tuning pins. When tuning an upright the tuner must either stand (in an awkward position) or sit and has to have the tuning arm above the head (which is not very comfortable and more strenuous on the body). Also, it is much easier to set a temperament in a well scaled grand piano than a smaller upright.

Myth: It is easier to tune an upright piano than a grand piano.
Fact: Not necessarily. Generally speaking, I find it much easier to tune grand pianos because it is much less stressful on my tuning arm.

Myth: Blind piano tuners are superior to sighted tuners.
Fact:  Not necessarily. Fully qualified blind tuners are equal to fully qualified sighted tuners.

Myth: Piano tuners who cannot play do not know how to tune.
Fact: Some of the best piano tuner technicians in the business do not know how to play - at all!

Myth: My piano only needs tuning.
Fact: If pianos are used regularly, they ALWAYS need additional work. Using an analogy, let's talk about your car. Does it only need gas or oil and nothing else - EVER? What about engine maintenance, windshield washer fluid, air in the tires, headlights, tail lights, wheel balancing, etc.

Myth: The piano tuner finished in under one hour, they did not do a good job.
Fact: Some tuners (very few) are extremely fast at their craft. You might ask if they completely checked the piano for sticking notes or regulation problems. Most tuners I know take 1 1/2 hours per visit.

Myth: Should I put a jar of water inside my piano?
Fact: Nowadays, humidity is well controlled by piano humidifier and dehumidifier systems. Depending on where you live, it would be best to have a Registered Piano Technician service your piano several times during a year or two to document any idiosyncrasies of your piano. If there are wild swings of pitch, your technician may suggest purchasing a humidity control system.

Myth: My soundboard has cracked, my piano is ruined!
Fact: Not necessarily. Some pianos have soundboards with many cracks and they sound just fine. However, there is no question that the value of the piano will be less because of the noticeable visual defect.

Myth: Piano tuners require perfect silence when tuning.
Fact: The piano tuner requires reasonable (not complete) silence in order to do their work accurately. The vacuum cleaner is the piano tuner's worst enemy!

This list will be continually updated. For additions, contact paulbrn@telus.net

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Piano Tuning Quotes - What To Look For

Continue reading below, but I no longer give quotes. I cannot quote on something I've never seen.

Like most people nowadays, we are always trying to get the best value for our money. How do you know which piano tuner/technician to choose?

Here is a list of items that I would look for if I was a customer.

1. What are the tuning fees:
For fine tuning, my fee is $140 GST included. That price is for Vancouver, Richmond and North and West Vancouver. For outlying areas, the charge is more.

For pitch raising or lowering (above or below 10 cents. The spacing between each note is 100 cents), my fee is $30.00 (GST included) extra.

2. Qualifications: Make certain that the tuner/technician has credentials or trade papers. My trade papers are here. If they cannot produce documentation proving they are a skilled tradesman, look elsewhere. When somebody just says that they are certified and professional, it does not mean that they are. Anybody can say that.

3. Make certain that they are tuners and technicians. If they only know how to tune a piano and something goes wrong, they have to have the knowledge to repair things that are broken or recommend a colleague who can.

4. After fulfilling the first 2 requirements I have mentioned, you might want to choose the tuner/technician who lives nearby. I am amazed at the number of people who hire out of town tuners when an equally qualified technician lives only a block or two away.

5. Word of mouth is excellent for referrals. When you have done good work for a number of people, your name gets passed along and no other advertisement is necessary. Other people do the advertising for you.

6. Be very wary of tuning quotes that seem too good to be true. Some of these people get into your house at a cheap price only to add things on as they start working. If you insist on a quote, make sure you get it in writing before any work is started!

Monday, January 4, 2010

How To Buy A Piano

NEVER BUY A PIANO without an inspection from a Registered Piano Technician! Once you buy a piano from the general public, you have no recourse to recover your money. This situation is known as "caveat emptor" (Let the buyer beware). In my opinion, it should be "Let the seller beware!"

Two of the best piano buying information books BY FAR can be found at www.pianobook.com. There is also an additional link on that website to www.pianobuyer.com.

The used piano market is far worse than the used car market in my opinion. If anyone tells you that you "must act now", run as fast as you can or hang up (if you are on the phone)! Almost always, these people are desperate to get rid of the junk that they have.

How much are you willing to pay for expert advice on purchasing a piano? Most people I have encountered would rather save some money than spend a few extra dollars guaranteeing they get good value for their money.

Typically, there are piano selling ads that state something like: "Old piano in perfect condition - only one or two notes need to be fixed. Perfect for a beginner!" Using an analogy about cars, the same ad might read: "80 year old car in perfect condition and refinished - brakes need to be fixed and tires are worn. Perfect for a beginner!"

Does that ad (about a car) make any sense to you? Well, it doesn't to me either but when the word 'piano' is substituted in the sentence, the general public seems to accept the ad as genuine.

Please! Go to www.pianobuyer.com, get informed and TAKE YOUR TIME when looking for a new or used piano. When you have selected something that seems to be okay, make certain you hired a Registered Piano Technician to do the final inspection before you spend your hard earned money.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Piano Tuning By Ear Or Machine

There has been so much misinformation about this topic; most of the public is now completely confused. When the customer notices that a piano technician is using an electronic device to tune their piano, they assume that they have not been trained by ear.

That may or may not be the case. If the technician has trade papers (Registered Piano Technician Member of PTG), they most certainly have aural tuning skills.

Let me explain again using an analogy.
You go to a doctor's office because you have a feeling of chest pain. The doctor might use a stethoscope and listen to the beat of your heart from the front and back. Suspecting something (perhaps nothing), the doctor might decide to use:

1. An electrocardiogram to further study your heart's activity.  *At this point do you stop your doctor and tell them to not use a machine and only listen to your heart by ear!? They might be lacking valuable information!
2. Chest X-Ray to further diagnose any heart abnormality. *At this point do you again stop your doctor and tell them to not use a machine!?
3. A CT scan which gives incredibly detailed information about the heart. *At this point do you stop your doctor from using a machine!?

From this perspective, you can now see how a fully qualified, accredited technician should be using every tool (electronic or otherwise) at their disposal to produce a truly exquisite tuning.

What kind of piano tuner are you?
I am known as a "hybrid piano tuner". I tune both aurally and with a machine. While the machine gets the work done much faster, I find that I MUST still make refined aural adjustments to arrive at the best tuning possible. If I was to tune strictly with the machine without making minute adjustments, mistakes could be made - such as those made by unqualified machine tuners with little or no aural tuning skills.

What happens when my machine breaks down?
No problem! Since I'm fully trained by ear, I simply continue where I left off. That has happened about a dozen times during the last 5 years or so. If you find that your tuner is not able to continue without a machine, I would get someone else who has complete aural training.

Are tuning forks accurate?
These are just pieces of metal which are influenced by temperature changes. If a customer requested that I tune the piano aurally, I would first set A440 with a machine and then turn it off and tune the rest of the piano by ear. There is no question that setting A440 with a machine (then tuning the rest of the piano aurally if requested) is the most accurate way.

When taking an exam to become a piano tuner, how you set A440 is extremely important! Guest what? To determine how close you set A440 on the piano with a tuning fork, the final result is measured BY MACHINE!! The mark (for setting pitch) is an indicator of two things.
1. The technician may or may not have an accurate tuning fork (they should have taken readings of their fork with a machine and made minor adjustments by filing).
2. The person may have an accurate fork but may not be able to accurately transfer the pitch to the piano.

Piano Tuning Fee: Fine Tuning - Pitch Raising

For fine tuning, my fee is $140 GST included. That price is for Vancouver, Richmond and North and West Vancouver. For outlying areas, the charge is more.

*I do not service Surrey, Delta or New Westminster areas.*

Piano Tuning as described (in Wikipedia) is: "The act of making minute adjustments to the tensions of the strings of a piano to properly align the intervals between their tones so that the instrument is in tune."

Many (but not all) pianos that have been neglected for long periods of time require a pitch raise or lowering so that the piano is at A440.

If you do not understand what a pitch raise is, think of this analogy.
You need somebody to cut your lawn because you are having an outdoor party. The lawn cutter comes over and notices that the grass in your yard is 2 feet high! He immediately tells you that his service will take much longer because he will have to cut the lawn several times to get it down to the standard height. Naturally, the fee will be more expensive because the original time quoted, will be much longer.

You could probably find a lawn cutter who is less experienced at a smaller fee who will simply cut the lawn just at the height it is, making only minor adjustments. The only problem is, the lawn height will not be appropriate for the party you expect to give.

It the lawn height is properly cut down to normal level, the grass will be brown and very stressed because of the amount of work done on it. Similarly, pitch raising or lowering the wires on a piano is very stressful and it will take a period of time before the piano settles down. Almost certainly, after major pitch adjustments of this nature, pianos will require tuning again within a few weeks to several months. There's absolutely no way around it.

For pitch raising or lowering (above or below 10 cents. The spacing between each note is 100 cents), my fee is $30.00 (GST included) extra.